The protagonist and narrator of The Fawn is twenty-six year old Eszter Encsy, a successful actress in post war Hungary. The novel tells her life story through fragments of memory. These unfold and merge to explain the role she believes she must play to survive.
Born and raised in the city of Szolnok in central Hungary, Eszter now lives in Budapest. She has an older lover to whom she is directing her telling of events, including how she is feeling. Like all those she has ever known, he does not understand what she is below the surface. She acts out her own life as she does those of assigned characters on the stage.
Now orphaned, Eszter was the only child of a sickly father and an aristocratic mother whose wealthy family all but abandoned them after her marriage. As Eszter’s father did not work, for a variety of reasons, her mother earned what she could by giving piano lessons to their more privileged neighbours. Eszter was expected to clean and cook for her family as well as doing odd jobs for anyone who would pay her a few pengő. She used this pittance to buy food and medicine, much of which was then consumed by her beloved father. She was not averse to stealing should the opportunity arise.
“the cream was sweet and soft and she still had a whole bowl full of it, vanilla-flavoured, and at home everything like that went straight to my father”
Eszter regarded her parents as beautiful and adoring of each other to their end. She felt sidelined, growing bitter and resentful of the demands and expectations placed on her. She did not, however, complain, learning to internalise both her physical and emotional suffering. What festered within was a hatred for those whose lives appeared comparatively easy. This is personified in a classmate, Angéla, who harbours the mistaken belief that Eszter is her friend.
When their affair started, Eszter was unaware that her married lover’s wife is Angéla, who she had not seen at the time for many years. When this fact is revealed, the way he speaks of Angéla and their history eats into their relationship. Eszter, once again, wants nothing more than to hurt her former classmate, whose life as she sees it has been filled with comfort and kindly attention. Eszter grows increasingly angry and frustrated when Angéla continues to garner support and consideration, always taking it for granted.
What is revealed is the lasting damage caused by a childhood of hunger and deprivation. Eszter learned young how to hide her true feelings in order to survive. This stood her in good stead as political turmoil changed the lives of so many, especially the wealthy. When Eszter’s family home was destroyed in a wartime bombing raid she did not mourn the loss of their few possessions – she valued them little. Rehomed temporarily in a hotel she had enough to eat and this was a luxury.
The narrative is disjointed in many ways but the structuring fits with how memory works. Images come to mind and their significance is pondered, retold as suits the time in which they are remembered. The ‘Dramatis Personae’ at the start of the book is useful in differentiating the cast of characters. Although it takes time to understand and engage with the plot, the writing style remains impressively taut and compelling, holding reader attention.
There is much screaming with laughter or faces wet with tears – these are obviously an emotional people. Even Eszter, who so often detaches herself from difficult feelings, cries and laughs, although mostly from a perspective of barely contained anger. Her lover reveals himself as shallow emotionally, self-absorbed and unaware of what Eszter is thinking. His continuing support for his wife may well stem from ego, a superficial need to believe he is a good person despite his infidelity.
Eszter is a strong if damaged character. She cares little how her lifestyle is regarded by others, believing she will never be loved having never felt valued for what she is. Her attention is focused on survival with a side dish of revenge. When a pivotal event pierces the armour she has constructed for self-preservation, those she could turn to do not recognise the crisis she now faces as they have never been permitted access to the true self even she can barely accept.
Any Cop?: Although a slow burn this is a masterfully constructed tale. The protagonist may often be somewhat unlikable but her outcome is still devastating. Hungary’s history through the mid twentieth century provides a fascinating backdrop. Another impressive translation of a story by this author that is well worth reading.